Daring in a blue dress, p.9
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       Daring In a Blue Dress, p.9

           Katie MacAlister
 

  Sometimes, it amazes me at just how naive I can be.

  Chapter 6

  Dearest Mercy.

  Alden stopped and glared at the paper sitting on the small desk in the bedroom he had claimed for his own. Dearest sounded dreadfully intimate. Far too intimate for people who’d just met.

  And had kissed twice.

  “None of that, now,” he told himself, shifting in the chair nonetheless. The memory of those kisses would remain uppermost in his mind for a very long time.

  Mercy, it has come to my attention . . .

  “Now I sound like a supervisor about to fire her.” Alden leaned back in the chair and tapped the pen on his chin as he thought. He’d come up with the idea to write Mercy a note because his therapist had once told him that if he couldn’t say something in person, writing it was the next best thing. “There has to be a happy medium. Dear Mercy? Ugh. Hi, Mercy! Oh, lord no. Hmm.”

  Outside the window, a tree limb tapped on the glass. He glanced at the window, making a mental note to have the willow trimmed. The moon was just starting to come up, its silvery orb barely visible, and Alden, with a mind to airing out a room that evidently hadn’t been used since Lady Sybilla’s husband died some years before, went to the window to let in a little fresh air.

  He struggled with the sash for a few minutes, finally managing to get it raised, the cool air swirling in around him, bringing with it the scent of the ocean, and grass, and the indefinable smell of dirt.

  “That’s better. Ah, what about a simple Greetings, Mercy. Yes. I like that.” He returned to his chair, bending over the sheet of notepaper he’d discovered in the small desk that inhabited a corner of the room.

  Greetings, Mercy. I hope this note finds you well. I felt obligated to write to explain the circumstances behind the kiss today. The second one, not the first. I think we both know the first was a pure accident, with no intentions behind it other than the simple acknowledgment of assistance received.

  He paused, tapping pen to chin again. Was he sounding too businesslike again? He didn’t want to give her the impression that he was a bloodless man who wasn’t affected to the tips of his toes by the kisses they’d shared. And yet, when he read over the letter, that’s exactly the impression he had.

  “Pompous ass,” he said to himself, and wadded up the sheet, tossing it into a nearby wicker trash bin.

  Greetings, Mercy. That second kiss—I wanted to apologize for it at the same time I wish we could do it again and again. . . .

  “Oh, hell no,” he said, crumpling the paper and tossing it with its brother. “Right. You’re making this harder than it needs to be. Just write the damned words.”

  His hand wavered over the paper while phrases danced around in his head, leaving him as muddled as he was when faced with a woman in person. His frustration ramped into high gear, filling him with anger at his own inability to function, as well as desperation to express himself.

  “Just do it!” he snarled at himself, his hand still held impotently over the paper. He wanted to swear at his failure, but couldn’t get the words through the tangled emotions, and in the end, driven by a mad need to get something down, dashed off a few words, and leaped up from the desk, the force of his movement sending the chair toppling over backward.

  The window sash dropped suddenly, the glass in the lower three panes breaking and tinkling to the carpet.

  Alden snarled something rude to the house, and ran out of the room, pausing at the door next to his. He cast a furtive glance around the hall, then slipped the note under the door before returning to his room to clean up the glass.

  Your eyes hold more shades of color than I’ve ever seen. Your smile could brighten the blackest of places. You bring joy where there was none.

  He swept the glass into the trash, absently wondering what on earth he had done, but feeling nonetheless that it was the right thing to do. He was truly grateful to Mercy for trying to help him, even if at times she left him feeling more foot-in-mouth than ever before. Not many people other than his brothers and therapist had ever spent time trying to urge him over the awkwardness that seemed to be bred into his bones, but with Mercy, he felt a genuine interest in his well-being.

  “Yes,” he said aloud, drawing the curtains over the broken window. “It was only right that I should let her know how much I appreciate what she’s done. Politeness doesn’t cost anything.”

  The light next to his bed popped and went out.

  He wondered, while he took a shower in the small bathroom attached to his bedroom, if Mercy had enough blankets. He’d checked out the room situation earlier in the day, acquiescing to Lady Sybilla’s suggestion that he take over the lord’s suite, which left three other bedrooms on that particular wing.

  “My former room is available should you marry,” she had told him with an air of grandiose benevolence. She was retiring for the night into her suite of rooms on the ground floor, which had formerly been a parlor, lady’s sitting room, smoking room, and bathroom, all of which had been renovated to suit Lady Sybilla’s current needs. Peeking into the rooms earlier in the day, Alden had noticed all the creature comforts, everything from a flat-screen television to a kitchenette complete with minute refrigerator, range, and microwave.

  “I don’t foresee needing the lady’s suite any time in the future,” Alden had told Lady Sybilla, and yet, that statement had been negated less than an hour later when, upon his showing Mercy the rooms, she cooed when entering the room nearest his.

  “Oooh, periwinkle,” she said, looking around the room with delight. It was decorated in various shades of lavender and periwinkle, very feminine and cloying, Alden thought, but admitted it hadn’t been created to suit his tastes.

  “I’ll have this one if you don’t mind,” she said.

  “Ugh. The purple room,” Fenice said, pausing by the open doorway. She gestured farther down the hall. “My least favorite of all the colors. I’m in the red room on the other side of the bathroom, which we share. Just be sure to lock the doors when you want privacy, OK? Patrick is sleeping over the stable, he says in order to guard our equipment, but really, I think it’s so he can slip out and meet up with the ladies.”

  “What ladies?” Mercy asked, looking confused.

  “Whoever gives him the time of day.” Fenice made a face. “Randy little sod. I’m glad you and Alden have hooked up. Otherwise, Patrick would be sure to hit on you. You’re just his type.”

  “I am?” Mercy asked, obviously startled.

  Alden was irritated on her behalf. If he heard that Patrick had bothered her the least little bit, he’d be forced to take action. Just the idea of Mercy being annoyed that way had him thinking dark thoughts.

  “Just know he’s out at the stable if you need him for anything,” Fenice finished.

  “That doesn’t sound very comfortable,” Mercy said, turning slowly in a circle to examine what furnishings remained (a bed, a massive wardrobe, which would probably have to be dismantled to remove it from the room, two chairs before an unlit fireplace, and a faded periwinkle and white striped fainting couch).

  “Don’t you believe it. I saw what he did with the groom’s room there—he’s got a gas ring for tea, cooler full of beer, and a massive air mattress. He’s as happy as he can be. Right, I’m to bed. Good night, you two.”

  “She definitely thinks we have something going on,” Mercy told him when Fenice left.

  Alden cleared his throat, relieved that Fenice had gone. “She can think whatever she likes. We know the truth.”

  “That we don’t have anything going on,” Mercy said, nodding.

  “That’s right, we don’t.”

  They stared at each other for a few seconds; then Alden remembered he was in her bedroom, and he wished her a good night.

  “You don’t think there are any rodents here?” she asked as he was leaving. He paused at the d
oor. “Mice, rats, that sort of thing. I have a phobia about them. I don’t see any signs of mouse droppings, or anything that’s been gnawed, but I don’t suppose you know for sure that there aren’t any here?”

  He had been on the verge of telling her he had no doubt whatsoever that the house was inhabited by mice, since it was of an age that allowed such things—not to mention having been neglected for decades—but the words stopped before he could get them out.

  Mercy hefted one of the chairs and peered into the corner before lifting up the edge of a faded blue and rose rug. “Nope, no signs of poop.”

  “I think you are safe,” he said, making a mental note to call an exterminator and have him assess how much it would cost to have the house mouse-proofed. Or at least their living quarters. “If it would make you feel better, I could put a few traps out.”

  “Ugh,” she said, shivering and rubbing her arms. “That would be even worse. I’d be forever holding my breath waiting for the trap to go off. And once it did, then there would be dead mice all over the place. Horribly dead mice. Ugh, ugh, ugh. Wait—are you saying I need to have traps?”

  “Not at all. I simply was offering to put some out to make you feel more secure.”

  “Oh, OK.” She relaxed, and gave him a little smile. “If you say there aren’t any mice here, then that’s good enough for me. Night.”

  “Good night.”

  He’d walked back to his room after that, and spent some time in contemplation of what he wanted to say to her. Then he’d hit upon the brilliant idea of writing the note, and now here he was, lying in bed, glad both that he’d written the note to express his gratitude, and also that he’d had the foresight to bring with him bed linens, pillows, and a couple of duvets.

  He ignored the rustling in the wall (he really would have to get an exterminator in) as well as the tap of the tree on the window frame around the now glassless windowpanes, and listened instead to the distant rumble of the surf, allowing it to lull him gently, inevitably to sleep.

  It was late, the darkest part of night, when a noise filtered through his sleeping brain to wake him. It wasn’t a noise that he expected to hear—the tree tapping, or a night bird calling—but one that instead had a stealthy quality that sent him from sleeping to groggy awareness.

  Someone was in his room.

  He fumbled for the lamp next to his bed before remembering that the bulb had gone out earlier in what he was coming to think of as the house’s attempt to let him know it did not appreciate his presence. “Whosit?” he said inarticulately.

  “Alden? It’s me.” The voice was breathy and soft, and with it, the bed dipped down on the side nearest the door. “You were wrong! There was a mouse in my room! A horrible, vicious, beastly thing.”

  “Hrn?” he asked, rubbing his face and peering at the barely visible black form that was silhouetted against the darkness of the room.

  “A mouse. Were you asleep? You’re awake now, right? I said that I have a mouse!”

  “Don’t bring it in the bed,” he said sleepily. “I’m not afraid of them like you are, but I won’t have one in my bed.”

  “Oh my god, don’t even joke about me touching it.” The bed shook a little as she shifted. “It was huge, Alden. A massive brute of a beast.”

  “Rat?” he asked without thinking.

  “EEK!”

  He sighed, and rubbed his face again. “Would you turn on the overhead lights? The bedside lamp committed suicide earlier.”

  “Sure.” The mattress moved again as she rose. “Next to the door?”

  “Yes. Argh.” He blinked at the sudden glare of lights, squinting at the sight of Mercy standing at the door in what had to be the single most erotic-looking piece of nightwear ever created. It appeared to be made of spider’s webs that revealed more than they hid, long, flowing sweeps of it caressing her curves in a way that had his tongue cleaving to the roof of his mouth.

  “Sorry. That is bright.” Mercy rubbed her bare arms, the movement doing wonderful things to her (nearly bare) breasts. “This is going to sound really weird, but would you mind if I spent the night in here?”

  She wanted to spend the night with him? Had his letter been taken in a way he hadn’t anticipated?

  “Assuming you don’t have mice, that is,” she added.

  He blinked at her a couple of times, thought about telling her the rustling in the walls warned that his room might not be as barren of rodents as she would like, but decided he would be downright certifiable to do so. “I don’t mind, no.”

  “Oh, good.” Her shoulders slumped a little in relief. She glanced around the room, taking in the scarce amount of furnishings. “Um. You don’t have a big chair or anything I could curl up in?”

  “Just the one at the desk, and I took that from the kitchen.” He wondered if her almost-gown would tear if she breathed deeply. He fervently hoped so.

  “Oh.” She looked doubtfully at him where he lay propped up on one elbow.

  “I believe this is the point where, if we were in a romantic comedy film, you would join me in bed and you’d barricade your side of the bed with a line of pillows.”

  She smiled, warming him in ways that would become embarrassing if he didn’t have a thick duvet covering him. “And if we were in a romantic novel, we’d wake up to have ‘accidental’ sex because I would somehow manage to roll myself on top of you while asleep, and we would then both wake up to find ourselves in a compromising position, and so would decide, what the heck? Since we’re lying in woman-on-top position already, why not go ahead and have sex?”

  He looked at her, aroused to the point where it was going to be not just embarrassing but painful, and wondered if she was hinting at what he thought she was hinting. He tried to form the words to ask her, but the thought of what she’d say if he misinterpreted kept his tongue tied in verbal knots.

  “Well?” she said, tipping her head to the side.

  Of course she wasn’t hinting that she wanted to sleep with him. She had just been kind earlier in kissing him, the act meant as a form of therapy. Highly erotic, enjoyable therapy. Nothing more.

  “Alden?”

  “Hmm?” No, what he needed to do was turn his room over to her, so she could spend the night in mouse-free comfort. He’d offer to take her room, instead, and thus would martyr himself on the altar of chivalry. Dammit, his dressing gown was all the way across the room next to the door to the bathroom. He supposed that if he rose while clutching the duvet to him, he could manage to scuttle crablike to the door, snagging his dressing gown en route.

  “Are you going to ask me to join you? Or do you expect me to try to sleep on that kitchen chair?”

  He gawked at her, a flat-out gawk. She didn’t just say what he thought he heard. She couldn’t. Could she? He’d better ask, just to be sure. “Erm?”

  Her nose wrinkled in puzzlement. “Was that an ‘erm, I’d love for you to climb into this bed in my lovely mouseless room,’ or was that more of a ‘erm, I’m saving myself for the woman who is coming and about whom I’ve been terribly mysterious, and she would not understand if she heard that you spent the night in my bed even though we didn’t do anything naughty’ sort of situation?”

  “I don’t . . . I’m not . . .” He stammered to a stop, then chastised himself and added immediately, “My brain has apparently ceased working for the night.”

  “OK, now I’m really starting to feel vulnerable,” she said, rubbing her arms again, a look of hesitancy replacing her amused teasing expression. “Should I go try to bunk with Fenice? I will do so if you can’t stomach the thought of me sleeping in your bed.”

  “No.” He flipped back the duvet, careful to keep it draped over his groin, which at this point was hard and needy and telling him to stop talking and get with the action already. “You don’t need to go sleep with Fenice. I just . . . I never thought . . . that is, you do
n’t seem like . . .” He stopped, wanting to bang his head on the wall. Why was it he could never say things without them coming out all wrong?

  She had hurried over to the bed at his invitation, but paused in the act of crawling between the covers. “I don’t seem like what?”

  He stared at her, unable to put into words the thoughts that were rolling around in his beleaguered brain.

  She stiffened. “You wouldn’t by any chance have been about to say that I don’t seem like the sort of woman who jumps into bed with a man she’s just met?” She took a deep breath, her eyes burning with an intensity that both aroused and worried him. “There’s a name for women—and men—like that. Tell me you did not just stop yourself from using it.”

  “I didn’t. I wouldn’t. I was just trying to say that no woman has ever wanted to . . . not on first meeting . . . oh, hell.”

  She crossed her arms, her expression black. “I see.”

  “Bloody, bloody, hell. Mercy—”

  “No, no need to explain.” She took a deep breath, which he was too distressed by his own ineptitude to appreciate. “It’s quite clear what you think of me. I will just point out that you, as a man who just met a woman, were clearly thinking about doing exactly what you’re damning me for. Not that I was offering to have sex with you; I simply wanted a respite from the mice. But you might want to think about that when you’re tarring me with your brush of morality. Since we are at such odds, I will return to my room and remove my unwelcome self from your presence.”

  She swung around on her heel and marched to the door, slamming it loudly as she exited.

  He winced at the noise, then sighed and punched the pillow next to him. How the hell could he have screwed up something so wonderful? Christ, there was no hope for him if Mercy—patient, thoughtful Mercy—couldn’t be around without him making a complete ass of himself.

  The door was flung open again. Mercy bolted through it and closed the door quickly, leaning against it and panting slightly. “That beast is still in my room. It charged me—so help me god, it charged me!”

 
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